South Central MediaScene | Email Us  | Home Page | Bookmark Us

logoSouth Central MediaScene 2007

Note that some stories are followups to 2006 coverage, which can be accessed here.

Bournemouth - The Writers' Circle
The appearance of a second Writers' Circle in town reminds us of the town's longstanding associations with writers of all types. The Writers' Guild Of Great Britain and Bournemouth University's Media School have announced the formation of a new Bournemouth Writer's Circle, which has started up with a core group of uni staff and students. The focus is on writing for film and TV, being led by a scriptwriting lecturer who is a longtime WGGB member. (As a trade union, the WGGB covers mainly scriptwriters rather than novelists, while BU has offered a degree in scriptwriting for just over ten years now.)
     They were to be called The Bournemouth Writers' Circle, but the pre-existing Bournemouth & District Writers' Circle complained about potential confusion, so this has been changed to: Not The Bournemouth Writers' Circle. The Bournemouth [& District] Writers' Circle (which now meets alternate Tuesday eves in Kinson in north Bournemouth and has its own blog), has actually been around for some four decades. This is really a reflection of the town's longstanding, though not widely known, association with writers of all types, going back to the town's earliest days. (I discovered a certain amount about this when I began teaching local literary heritage and compiled a 'Literary Bournemouth' guide to commemorate the UK Year Of Literature & Writing 1995, but more information has turned up since.)
     Before 1800 - before there was even a town - there was a 'literary discussion' type of group who came down to stay at one of the area's earliest large houses, Stourfield House. In the 19th C., Boscombe Lodge became the new centre, the son of the late poet and the author of Frankenstein making Boscombe Manor (alias Shelley Park) the focus of local literary activity. Robert Louis Stevenson became a friend of Lady Jane Shelley when he moved down to Westbourne for his 1880s sojourn, which led to 7 books. For one of them, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, RLS is thought to have the two title-character names from a visit with Thomas Hardy in Dorchester. Hardy himself stayed here in the early 1870s and described it as a good place to 'over-winter.'
Many writers have since come down to stay in the off-season, when it is quieter and a range of lodgings is available. Stevenson also kept a special chair ready for the American expatriate novelist Henry James, who continued to visit the town after RLS had left for Samoa. In the 1900s, there was a Tolstoyan literary colony based at Southbourne and Tuckton as staff of a publishing firm, Free Age Press, set up by Tolstoi's literary agent and executor Count Tcherktov, to publish English editions of the great man's banned works (like Resurrection). The Fabians, the Socialist group which was largely writer-led, also had local roots, with Fabian (and New Statesman) co-founder Beatrice Webb staying in the town from 1875 on, having her first writing accepted while living here in the 1880s. Rupert Brooke was one of the Fabian group, first staying in the town in 1895 as a child and by 1907 meeting Hardy and the new generation of Bloomsbury Group writers who also began to frequent the area.
     That's not to mention the writers who have lived here since, in the last century. A more detailed look than we've room for here would link in many other writers of all types, some still being discovered, into the (ongoing) local literary network. As American travel writer Paul Theroux commented after a visit, 'Bournemouth was the most literary place'.

Return To Top


New Media Rights & Wrongs
Once we had the Stone Age, then the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Now we live in the Online Age. There are still those who should understand the implications of this better than they do - like government offices who don't understand the dangers of identity theft and do things like lose every UK family's personal data by putting it on CD and posting it 2nd class. There are also people in the media industry who ought to understand matters better, like newspapers and record companies still pursuing a pre-internet business model. The current Writers' Guild Of America strike which is shutting down US TV shows is a case in point.
The WGA strike is over new-media rights, to obtain residual payments. Hollywood studios have said for instance that the writer's share of DVD revenue should be zero. The studios also argued there should be no payment for the new online methods of distribution that are appearing, on the grounds that where studios offer movies, clips, etc for download, this is merely 'promotional', not commercial. This is despite the fact they are charging corporate rates for any accompanying ads - a bit like the idea ITV programmes are "free." The standard internet-era caveat-emptor acronym for this is TANSTAAFL - referring to situations where the real profits lie in providing a "free" item.
What the Guardian Director Of Digital Content is really complaining about is that the advertising "ratecard" (to use her term) is too low, as the web is too competitive for pre-internet business models to survive with the same profit margins as before. The article by the 'Director Of Digital Content' at The Guardian titled 'Striking Writers Are Wrong To Think They Should Be Paid More' argues US script writers are wealthy playboys who don't understand the hard financial realities of the "interweb." ("What the screenwriters have not cottoned onto is that the digital distribution platforms are going to make us all poorer. And that seems to be the central concept which all creative industries have such trouble computing.") The illiterate compound of the words internet and web (which are not the same thing) rather undermines the idea the writer of this piece (who is also a former editor-in-chief of the Guardian) has the more sophisticated understanding.
David Niven and Wendy Hillier in Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables, filmed 50 years ago in Hollywood, set in Bournemouth Profit-participation is an established part of international business, and films can now earn as much again as, or even more than, a DVD release than they did at the cinema. Unlike newspapers, Hollywood is doing well from new-media rights. Their protestations of poverty here are undermined by their loud and persistent claims that DVD and video ‘piracy’ costs them billions in lost revenues. There are larger issues, and The Guardian also published an article by the head of the The Writers’ Guild Of Great Britain, on the strike as ‘a fight for the creative and financial independence of writers’, We Are Not Wage Slaves. I’ve read that in the US all least six million mortgages are at risk if the strike drags on.
The WGGB is asking members to respect the WGA action, and an international day of solidarity to support the WGA action is planned for 28 November. The other argument against the strike is that scriptwriters are all hacks anyway, and we'd be better off if they went out and got a proper job, and left writing to real writers - novelists and journalists, presumably. So I thought here we could take a moment to consider some scriptwriters with local links. To tie this in more with the Hollywood strike, I've chosen ten better-known names whose films were often financed over there.
Local-interest films here go back to Thomas Hardy, who helped vet scripts of his works and despite poor silent adaptations, helped petition the government on behalf of the UK film industry in the 1920s. There's writer-director Michael Powell (Black Narcissus etc) who grew up partly in the area and used his knowledge of the area in his The Small Back Room. There's Sir Terence Rattigan, whose stays in B'mth led to his locally-set Separate Tables and the fact-based Cause Celebre (based on the 1935 Rattenbury murder trial). JB Priestley lived on Wight and wrote an original tragicomedy script called Last Holiday set in the resort of 'Pinebourne' starring a young Alec Guinness. Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate who scripted and narrated witty architectural documentaries, was co-founder of the Bournemouth Civic Society. Robert Bolt lived in the New Forest while working on Dr Zhivago for Lean.
Maverick writer-director Ken Russell, whose films are often partly shot locally, still lives in the New Forest despite his cottage burning down. His onetime art director, the independent filmmaker Derek Jarman (Jubilee, The Last of England, etc) was schooled locally and shot early films here. Harold Pinter worked in B'mth as a young actor, and his first play is said to have been based on a local incident; he later scripted Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman and wrote the remake of Sleuth (set Salisbury area) just out. Julian Fellowes, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Gosford Park, has his own stately home in Dorset at West Stafford. The writer-director Anthony Minghella, Oscar-winner for The English Patient is from Ryde on Wight (he recently got an honorary degree from B'mth Uni).
If the strike does drag on (with TV showing even more repeats than usual), you could do worse than rent or buy a DVD of their work. And that's just ten examples. The list goes on, right across the spectrum of British film and TV - check the film-TV section of this site, which we are always updating.
Update: Anthony Minghella died in March 2008.

Return To Top


Digging The Past On TV     
BBC4's recent Archaeology Evening [22-10-07], on how archaeology programmes have been a hit British TV genre since the 1950s showcased a number of distinctive local sites - Stonehenge, Maiden Castle, Silbury - which have also since proved popular with authors and filmmakers as settings for fictional works. We've seen the actual Stonehenge on screen in films like The Small Back Room, The Moonraker, and the horror classic Night Of The Demon [pictured], as well as prop versions of it in adaptations of Hardy's Tess Of The D'Urbervilles (by Polanski in '79 and by ITV since). This same week we also got a behind-the-scenes BBC docu on making the Beatles's 1966 Help!, including the Stonehenge sequence. (I suspect this was the inspiration for its use as a stage prop in the cult film Spinal Tap.) The enormous Iron Age hill-fort Maiden Castle was seen in the Stonehenge as seen in the 1958 classic Night Of The Demonswordsmanship-display scene in the 1967 film of Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd. Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe, has been less used as a film-TV location as it has long been out-of-bounds due to the danger of collapse.
However authors of futuristic as well as prehistoric-era novels have been drawn to the megalithic landscape of Wessex, including Silbury as a 'mother goddess' site. (For example, Christopher Priest’s A Dream Of Wessex is set in the future in a think-tank under Maiden Castle, Peter Ackroyd's First Light concerns the discovery of a prime-condition royal Neolithic burial mound, and Keith Roberts' much-admired futuristic-pastoral stories are usually set amidst ancient Wessex sites.)
These sites are now seen onscreen in TV docus as they originally appeared, thanks to advances in computer animation, which can take old-fashioned "artist's impressions" [see example below] and turn them into a 3-dimensional landscape over which the camera can roam. Silbury was the object of early live coverage of an English Heritage tunnel project, arranged by David Attenborough as the new head of BBC2. BBC's Archaeology Evening included a separate half-hour, Silbury: Heart Of The Hill, presented by Neil Oliver from BBC's A 1940s artist's impression of Avebury, done for the Ministry Of Workshit Coast series, which brought the story up to date. The Archaeology Evening began by showing the development of the TV-archeo genre going back to the 1950s, via a retrospective docu. We saw teams of schoolboys from Dorset private schools (Canford and Bryanston) demonstrating the transporting of stone blocks by land and water, to simulate how Stonehenge might have been created. This half-hour was called Digging The Past, after one of Sir Mortimer Wheeler's books. He was the first TV-celebrity archeo-historian, his most famous dig being Maiden Castle (the Durotrigan capital near Dorchester, which Vespasian's legions stormed), and he also got a separate half-hour on his career, wryly titled A Life In Ruins.
He lasted into the era of colour TV, when BBC's Chronicle series took over coverage, for 25 years from 1968. This series had established itself with "The Silbury Dig" live outside-broadcast, and went on to cover such events as the slow recovery of the Tudor warship Mary Rose in Southampton Water, and the high-profile 1960s dig at South Cadbury Castle hillfort (which local lore claimed to be Camelot). Chronicle also went overseas and kickstarted the Holy Blood Holy Grail/ Da Vinci Code nexus with a series of docus by Henry Lincoln on Rennes-le-Chateau ... whose worldwide popularity made the archeo-docu even more bankable in TV terms.
This TV documentary strand has also opened the way for other, non-archaeology, history-as-science series BBC's Meet The Ancestors, and series such as BBC's portmanteau Coast (produced by the BBC for Open U., this has been another 'surprise' hit, with 2 series in the can so far). The genre's relative popularity also led to using celebrity presenters from other TV genres, such as 'Blackadder' actor Tony Robinson on C4's Time Team, and Richard 'Hamster' Hammond from Top Gear hunting the Grail, in order to try to popularise the subject matter even further. It also pioneered 'reality TV' setups with programmes where a group of volunteers try to follow an ancient lifestyle, starting with Living In The Past in 1968, filmed at an Iron Age village built in Cranborne Chase.
Nevertheless, a number of professional archeo-historians have become TV presenters in their own right - after Wheeler (1890-1976) came the modern media-savvy generation who do books and TV documentaries - Mike Pitts, Sir Barry Cunliffe, Julian Richards, Michael Wood. This has offered them a means of promulgating revisionist theories of history, as with Bournemouth Uni's Prof Tim Darvill, whose most recent book proposes a theory about Stonehenge's purpose which is quite different from the official orthodox one long promoted by English Heritage. Based on discoveries made during recent digs which have already generated hundreds of news stories, this new theory is soon to be the subject of a BBC Friday-night TimeWatch documentary. And Ridley Scott is currently working on a thriller called Stones, on the real secret of Stonehenge - which will no doubt generate a lot more media coverage.

Return To Top


Local Ups And Downs
The fates of half a dozen local buildings with cultural associations have been in the news.
The IMAX Waterfront Building and The Pavilion Corfe Castle, our premier ruined-castle film-TV location since the days of the first Famous Five films, currently has its upperworks covered in green mesh in an attempt to repair its cracking masonry, spoiling its potential as a location. Clavel Tower, made famous by Hardy and PD James's The Black Tower [just repeated on ITV4], has actually been dismantled to save it from clifftop erosion, and will be rebuilt just inland as holiday accommodation. Tolkien's bungalow above Branksome Chine in Canford Cliffs (where he lived from his retirement to his wife's death), sold for around £1 million, has been promptly demolished, to make way for a pair of compact 'family homes.' Borders, the town's biggest bookshop, may also be doomed: the US-owned chain have said they intend to abandon Europe to focus on their domestic market. (Update: the head of Channel 4 has said he will buy Borders UK. Given C4's downmarket slide, whether this is good news remains to be seen.) On a more positive note, the Tapp & Hobbit pub next door is being replaced by a tapas bar, and a 1930s-decor restaurant/tearoom has opened in the Echo's old print room.
After years of local campaigning to save or replace the Winter Gardens, the concert hall is to be replaced by - wait for it - parking spaces (what else?). The Echo's headline [15-9-07] said it all: "£2m And What Does Town Get? A CAR PARK". The Pavilion theatre, doomed but not yet demolished, also made the news this month when a professional theme-park designer who had proposed establishing, with the endorsement of Aardman Animations, a Wallace & Gromit themed science centre 'Exploratorium' as a family attraction (long a talking point locally) complained the Council were the most difficult he had ever dealt with.
The former Bournemouth & Poole College - "The College" as it calls itself since its corporate rebranding - is to demolish both its main sites and replace them with a set of giant bunker-style departmental centres, linked by covered walkways. Only the two heritage buildings, the modern art gallery on the Poole site, and the old public-library building with its clock tower at the Lansdowne site, will be left standing. Construction has not yet begun, but the budget has already skyrocketed from £25 to £40 to £80 to £125 million. As this is already far more than any college could ever bring in, the two sites may well turn into something else by the time the builder's liens are removed, such as insurance-company or council offices. In the meantime the main route between the two towns may be turned into a gigantic one-way loop to forestall impending rush-hour gridlock.
Of course, in the way of things, the one building most people would like to see replaced seems safe. The IMAX Waterfront complex was voted in one poll as Britain's ugliest new building due to the fact its ugly backend faces the main road coming down to the sea from the Royal Bath Hotel. It stands one the east side of the Pierhead square, with the Bournemouth International Carbuncle Centre - the earlier main candidate for local eyesore - abutting onto the western slope. In order to demolish or re-purpose and convert what local MP Tobias Ellwood also calls 'a carbuncle', it would have to be taken over by a single owner with a plan communicated to, and passed by, the Council. Part of the site seems to be owned by a Northern Ireland local government officers' pension fund [!], while a new 'mystery' company, AYL (Waterfront) Ltd., claims to have bought the building lease. As usual (this saga has been ongoing for over 5 years now) no one can say anything definite regarding its status or future, with the Council, a successor to the one which approved it, still in the dark.
If former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman were still around he might be able to come up with a few choice words for all this - he was after all Founding President of the Bournemouth & District Civic Society. In one of his famous TV documentaries on towns, he did an impersonation of a builder referring to the 'jutting buttocks' of blunt, modern IMAX-style design. With the town approaching the 200th anniversary of its birth as a planned health resort, local poets may soon be inspired to compose something along the lines of his "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough / It isn't fit for humans now." Or perhaps something in the style of Pam Ayres (a fan of Bob Dylan) might be blunter and more to the point.

Return To Top


George Baker, Wessex Man
If any one actor should get a long-service award for appearing in local-interest films and TV dramas, it would be George Baker. For over a decade (1987-2000) he was Detective Chief Inspector Reg Wexford in dozens of episodes of ITV’s locally-filmed The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, complete with a dignified 'Wessex' accent. Baker also scripted some of the episodes and co-produced some of the later ones via his own production company. Fifty years ago, he appeared in several films shot locally, one of which is issued this month (August) on DVD.
George Baker as The MoonrakerThe Moonraker was one of those Technicolor swashbucklers inspired by the success of ITV ‘kidult’ historical-adventure series like Robin Hood, complete with ballad-based score. Baker plays the "last of the Cavaliers," a dashing young aristocrat nicknamed the Moonraker who helps the fugitive king Charles Stuart escape to France in 1651. For a film of a stage play (by former film censor Arthur Watkyn), this 1957 Associated British Pictures Corporation production directed by David Macdonald has more location work than others of its genre.
Macdonald had launched his career in 1947 with a pioneering location drama about fishermen on Skye, The Brothers, and here we see Stonehenge, Lacock preserved village and Abbey for a narrow escape from the Roundheads, who seem based at Bodiam Castle. (The odd geography is due to it all being vaguely based on a real historical episode where the future Charles II tried to embark for France via Bridport but had to flee eastward via Stonehenge to take ship on a brig out of Sussex.) The play’s original main setting of the clifftop "Windwhistle Inn" (where the serving wench is a sympathetic Sylvia Syms) on the road to Bridport, is a set, but the final swordfight with Cromwell’s secret agent (Peter Arne) is atop Stair Hole, on the west side of Lulworth Cove.
Originally a West End stage actor, Baker had been put under an ABPC contract as a prospective 50s ‘matinee-idol’ actor. Later he recalled this film was to be his big break as a tall, dark and handsome romantic lead, but this was eclipsed by the advent of the angry-young-man film, he being regarded as one of the upper class old guard to be swept away. He had already appeared as an officer-class type in several British war films. There had been insignificant parts in A Hill In Korea and The Dam Busters, then a co-starring one (with Richard Attenborough and Bernard Miles) in Ealing’s 1955 The Ship That Died Of Shame, filmed largely in Weymouth and Poole Harbour. There, as the film’s narrator, the captain of a motor gunboat, he sees his wife (Virginia McKenna) killed in a Weymouth Harbour bombing raid, leading to his postwar decline into crime as a smuggler. Later, Ian Fleming put his name forward to play 007, but he wound up as just another of the many RADA-voiced also-rans when the role went to a working class Scot. He would later play supporting roles in two 007 films.
It was in the late Sixties when lead roles had plainly dried up that he began to be typecast as the smooth-talking but usually amoral upper-class Englishman. A diplomat’s son himself, he played the tragic diplomat Sir David Mountolive in Cukor’s 1968 Justine, an adaptation of book one of The Alexandria Quartet by onetime local author Lawrence Durrell. He was the original ‘Number Two’ representing the Village’s sinister, undefined authority in the first episode of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. He was heraldic expert Sir Hilary Bray in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where he also dubbed George Lazenby’s 007 when he is impersonating Sir Hilary for plot reasons. In Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), he played the hypocritical aristo who opposes the marriage of Peter O’Toole (as Chips) and his ex-mistress, showgirl Petula Clark. The film was shot in Sherborne by Oswald Morris from Fontmell Magna (more recently patron of the Wimborne Cine & Video Club).

George Baker and Christopher Ravenscroft as DCI Wexford and DI Burden He kept his career going with a variety of TV roles, the best-known being in BBC’s 1976 I, Claudius series, as the Emperor Tiberius, and Ngaio Marsh’s rather posh CID man Inspector Alleyn in a syndicated filmed series. Though he appeared in over 250 film and TV roles, and ran his own theatre company in the 70s, Baker also began writing to make ends meet. He completed dozens of radio plays, poetry, a cookbook (A Cook For All Seasons) and several teleplays, including his 1980 BBC2 drama The Fatal Spring, on WWI soldier poets Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, which won a UN peace prize.
The Inspector Wexford scripts were adapted from the novels or short stories Ruth Rendell had written since 1964, and the series was distinguished by its flexible format, where the number and length of episodes were tailored to fit the needs of each story. Some were one- or two-hour single dramas, others were 2, 3, or 4 one-hour episodes. Apart from an experimental phase shooting with colour video-cams, most of the 23 separate titles were shot on 16mm Eastmancolor. The series production base was Romsey north of the New Forest, Baker living in a cottage nearby (“the first place in England that gave me a sense of belonging.”). In Hampshire-based TVS’s series, Rendell’s fictional Sussex town of “Kingsmarkham” was relocated to this area, i.e. the Test Valley. The town was also represented on-screen by Southampton and Bournemouth, and the surrounding countryside often by the New Forest, its big houses represented by places like Rhinefield House Hotel and Highcliffe Castle.

Baker as Wexford, complete with trilbyOriginally, in 1986, Ruth Rendell thought the 6’4” actor too handsome for her "ugly" provincial Sussex detective Reg Wexford, but Baker insisted on playing him with paunch, trilby hat, military blazer with badge, and an accent which has been compared to that of a Somerset farmer. The Wessex (Hampshire?) accent Baker adopted rightly dignified the character, giving him a distinctive voice, and making him appear old-fashioned and sternly moral compared to the more urbanised and amoral younger people he meets on his cases. Baker also set up his production company, Blue Heaven, to have some control over the business end after TVS lost their TV franchise to Meridian. The series was ITV’s Sunday-evening prime-time drama in the 1990s and was syndicated, slightly cut and reformatted, around the world. (On occasion, the story locale itself went international – California, the Mediterranean, China.) The later Wexford novels went unfilmed as Baker got fed up with ITV's demand he work 16-hour days at his age, the last 3 (Simisola, Road Rage, and Harm Done) being one-off drama 'specials', which were issued last Xmas as a DVD box set.
Unlike with other detective series, the 23 episodes are however still not all available as a dedicated set or definitive edition on DVD. The series was re-acquired by ITV Digital last year and shown on ITV3 over the first half of 2007. You can also hear Baker as Wexford on various audio cassette readings of the original novels. Wexford would be George Baker’s magnum opus, and he titled his candid 2002 autobiography The Way To Wexford. When his 2nd wife died, he married the actress playing Reg’s on-screen wife Dora. After the Wexford series ended, they retired to his West Lavington home, where age 75 he rides his horse across Salisbury Plain, just as he did fifty years ago, for The Moonraker.

Return To Top


Publishing, The Jane Austen Way

Jane Austen is back in the headlines for the third time in recent months.
First, in April we had headlines like "Austen 'Too Ugly' For Book Cover". This was the fuss over her cover-portrait makeover, where the publishers of a new paperback reprint decided to digitally enhance the one verifiable sketch of her to 'sex up' her image to resemble a conventional Regency heroine. Done by her older sister Cassandra, the original sketch now in the National Portrait Gallery shows her in a nightcap, looking 'grumpy'. It was the basis of an 1870s engraving used as her official portrait, which was also in fact touched up so that her mouth was not so tightly pursed. (There was another claimed portrait of her age 14, looking sprightlier and more flirtatious, which was put on sale in April by Christie's in New York for six figures, but got no takers as it could not be authenticated.) Then in June there was the fuss over a complaint from the editor of a book of quotations that Austen's legendary 'wit' was nowhere to be seen, with the editor challenging anyone to submit an example. This led to letters from supporters bravely quoting intended examples like her remarks about the weather, while others pointed out her wit wasn't the quotable kind, that she was a satirist, using a rather dry irony.

Cassandra's sketch and an 1870s engraving from itNow we have what the Jane Austen Blog is calling Jane Austen's Shocking Publishing Rejection. This was a publicity stunt where the new director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, David Lassman, has made a case that if Austen was writing now, she would not find a publisher. Unable to get his own novel accepted or considered, he submitted several recycled Austen works (under disguised titles) to 18 publishers and literary agents, and got the predictable form rejections. Only one, publisher Jonathan Cape, actually warned him outright about plagiarism, and thus definitely read the submission. Other publishers have since said in their defence they probably didn't even read it. Apparently from bitter experience they were leery of accusing anyone of plagiarism, and think it less offensive in such cases of suspected plagiarism to say they didn't think it commercially viable. In the subsequent fuss the publishers discovered they had offered up hostages to fortune with this excuse, for they simply made themselves look dishonest as well as incompetent. In PR terms, in using these standard waffling brush-off letters they had shot themselves in the foot. For example, Penguin's response to Pride & Prejudice, which they had reprinted last year, was that "It seems like a really original and interesting read." They should have known that journalists, who think nothing of plagiarising stories from rivals, have been pulling this sort of stunt for years, using everything from Booker Prize winners to washing-machine instructions, to show how incompetent publishers' editors really are. In this case, it's hard to believe the editors missed the broad clues like the pen name Lassman used, Alison Laydee, or the famous opening line of P&P. ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.")

The story was picked up around the world, from the British national press to the BBC to Agence France-Presse to the NY Times, and was soon being debated around the literary blogosphere, from the Janeites to the Writers Guild, as well as gaining an instant entry on the 'Museum Of Hoaxes' website. The rough consensus among the literary bloggers was the stunt's premise was invalid. The naiveté of the latest attempted hoax aside, this remains a touchy matter that goes to the heart of how books are selected for publication in today's corporate publishing world. The Austen-in-disguise affair follows on from several scandals last year where, in their rush to find 'sexy' young writers, editors didn't notice manuscripts were plagiarised from published novels, and accepted them. One instance led to a 19-year-old losing a contract with Spielberg as well as her career as a novelist, and her reputation. It also came out she had been 'developed' as a writer by a US book packaging firm. This business of publishers cultivating young female writers and trying to build them up as the next [fill in name of bestselling 'chick-lit' author here] has been discussed by media-watchers for over a decade. (Apparently your portrait photo is key - you should look young, blonde, and sexy; older or overweight females need not apply.) The plagiarists in these cases were detected not by editors but by fans who networked online, in one case alerting the original source author (Hilary Mantel). The publisher initially defended the borrowings as unconscious etc. and said they would just re-edit the book. But then fans found chunks of other works by well-known writers like Salman Rushdie, raising the issue of how well-read book editors are these days.

The scandal last year extended to non-fiction in regard to the 'misery memoir' genre, where the narrator survives a traumatic childhood (the latest wrinkle on the American inspirational success-story genre). Several such authors (one promoted on TV by Oprah Winfrey) got caught passing off fiction as memoir: that is, they fictionalised their own lives. In one case, publishers had turned down the book as fiction, and cynically encouraged the author to re-submit it as nonfiction for the 'misery memoirs' market. In education, there have been growing complaints students are being allowed to present assignments plagiarised from online sources, and the new cut'n-paste literary plagiarism seems a continuation of this. The Da Vinci Code plagiarism trial last year exposed that the author and his wife had used the same methodology, printing off pages found via Google searches, so in the end they didn't know exactly where info had come from. Comments on the Austen-in-disguise affair, e.g. in the Daily Mail, ranged from this-is-more-evidence-of-a dumbed-down-Britain to confirming the suspicions of writers that publishers don't read manuscripts sent them and/or that they wouldn't know good writing from bad anyway.

The predictable counter-argument was this was a vain exercise by a no-hoper who couldn't his own novel published. Other editors chimed in, saying that those who sent in unsolicited MSS typically were loonies who wrote in all caps or green ink, from mental hospitals or high-security prisons, and wouldn't take no for an answer. However even some of those who thought the stunt was naïve were dismayed by the way in modern publishing hierarchies "clerks and office staff are rejecting these manuscripts offhand." One of the publishers representatives who wrote an article for The Independent admitted works by unknown writers were only looked at in a few spare moments by overworked interns.

Another argument emerged: the publishers and agents were quite right to turn the works down, as in publishing terms Austen's work is of no interest today. (This is not long after Pride And Prejudice was voted Britain's favourite novel.) It's interesting therefore to look back at the trouble Austen herself had finding a publisher. Writing under the pen-name A Lady (hence Lassman's use of 'Alison Laydee'), her short first novel "Lady Susan" (1794) was never submitted to a publisher, and is regarded as juvenilia, i.e. a practice work. Her first full-length effort, "Elinor & Marianne" would languish in a drawer for 16 years. Her next work, "First Impressions" (1796-7) her father, a Hampshire rector, sent out, only to have it sent back unread by return post. Her 1798 "Susan" (also known as "Catherine") was accepted in 1803 by a publisher in Bath for £10, but never issued, the publisher preferring to write off the £10. By this time she must have been feeling discouraged, for during the 1800s she wrote little - her next work, known as "The Watsons," she never completed.

Then in 1811, the 35-year old Jane managed to get "Elinor & Marianne" printed by dint of her London-banker brother Henry paying the publisher's printing costs to guarantee against his incurring a loss. (Today this is regarded as a form of vanity publishing, and would count against you in publishers' eyes.) It was published anonymously, though credited as an "Interesting Novel by Lady A-" (an interesting affectation, implying plain Jane was a Lady in the Burke's Peerage sense). It was put out under the more appealing title Sense And Sensibility, and to her surprise she made £140 return on the venture. She was now able to get her 1797 "First Impressions" published under the title Pride And Prejudice, as an outright sale, for £110.

It seems it was only when she saw her way past her dull working titles that her work got published, for these alliterative-pair schematic titles played off the sentimental fiction of the day which her work often implicitly mocked. However this boldness of title seems not to have appealed to her, perhaps being too close to the sentimental fiction genre, and the title changes may not have been her own idea. For her next two titles she reverted to plain character or setting names instead: Mansfield Park (1811-13), published in 1814, and Emma (1814-15), her first work to be published without delay. (It had a dedication to the Prince Regent, at his suggestion.) By this time, her publishers were the well-established firm of John Murray (founded in 1768, John Murray is now part of Hodder Headline Books.) However all but £38 of the profits from Emma were eaten up by an unsaleable 2nd edition of Mansfield Park, which had also been printed by Murray "on commission" - i.e. paid for by the author. She also got Henry to buy back the copyright of "Susan", which the publisher had kept in his desk drawer for 13 years (he having no idea she was the author of P&P), and revised it.

Unfortunately, fortune was now turning against her. Her banker brother Henry went bankrupt when he became ill in 1816, and she had to nurse him and her mother, while experiencing the first symptoms of the disease that would kill her. In 1815-16, she wrote her final completed novel "The Elliots", but it was not published in her lifetime. In early 1817 she began a final novel, "The Brothers," but was unable to complete it due to her own undiagnosed illness (possibly lymphoma), which killed her in July 1817, age 41. "The Elliots" and "Susan" alias "Catherine" were published posthumously under the more imaginative titles (agreed by Henry and Cassandra) Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. The final tally was 4 novels published over a 20-year career, and another two posthumously. None of her books were published under her own name in her lifetime.

Since then of course, "Jane Austen" has become a brand name for an entire heritage-tourism industry, her grave and final home in Winchester a literary shrine, and her work the basis of an entire genre of talky pre-marital romance novels. One of the ripostes to this latest hoax story from a book-firm managing editor was the observation that publisher John Murray "became a rich man publishing Persuasion," but he would never have published writers like "Salman Rushdie, Irvine Welsh or Don Delillo". On its face, this is not surprising as they were not born for another century, but I suppose he meant their work evolved the novel form, as Austen had in her time.

Personally, I think Austen had the right approach. In her private life, she had little luck and didn't find a marital soul-mate, but declined a marriage of convenience. (Married women also had a better chance of finding a publisher, as they would obviously know more about adult life than a spinster living with her parents.) Though modern screen adaptations often end with wedding scenes, her novels ended of necessity just before the protagonist was married. Professionally, like most authors she never found a sympathetic editor or literary agent. But she stuck to her guns and wrote about what she knew (ignoring what her friend Walter Scott called the big bow-wow stuff i.e. the sweep of history), sticking to her favoured story setup of "3 or 4 families in a Country Village."

If you read literary biographies, it's usually the case that the successful career writer has a long-term relationship with an editor or agent that is more than a marriage of convenience in pursuit of financial security via formula writing. The editor helps the writer develop their career imaginatively, so that they didn't repeat themselves, or simply dry up. (Remember when the intelligent publisher's motto was, "We don't publish books, we publish authors"?) For the unimaginative approach only leads to attempting imitation of past successes, too often pressuring the young authors publishers favour into plagiarism and other career dead ends. Successful writer-editor relationships seem to be based on a shared imaginative sensibility, all else in the way of literary development following on naturally from this. But the question remains, do such editors survive in today's corporate publishing world?
Return To Top


The Unquiet Grave
The 'Ripper' case detective made famous on screen by Michael Caine and Johnny Depp, but buried in Bournemouth in an unmarked grave, is finally given a proper memorial as a new BBC TV drama about him is developed.
Abberline memorial serviceA ceremony attended by Scotland Yard officials was held in July at Bournemouth cemetery to commemorate the life of Frederick Abberline, pioneering CID man who was the head detective in the 1888 Ripper case. Detective Chief Inspector Abberline is at present best known by being played by Michael Caine in a 1988 TV drama and by Johnny Depp in From Hell, from the Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell graphic novel. BBC1 is reportedly producing an £8-million, 8-part drama series, with Abberline possibly played by EastEnders star Shane Ritchie. (Abberline already features as an incidental character in a number of M.J.Trow's "Inspector LeStrade" Victorian crime mystery novels. )
            Born in Blandford, Abberline spent 29 years in the police, and retired to Bournemouth in 1910, dying here in 1929 of bronchitis. Lacking any immediate descendants to pay for a headstone, he was buried in an unmarked, pauper's grave, and none of his papers, or even a photograph of him, survive. This year, a group of real-life fans including police officers subscribed a memorial for the grave, which was traced by its plot number. A temporary marker with Abberline's name was replaced by a proper headstone dedicated by the Mayor and a group from the Metropolitan Police Historical Society. A plaque on the house where he spent his last 19 years (195 Holdenhurst Road) was dedicated in 2001 in a ceremony attended by a group of Ripperologists holding their convention here because of the case's local links. These links are not actually limited to the Detective Inspector's Dorset background and final years here in Bournemouth: the chief suspect named in police notes was from a leading local family. This was Montague J Druitt, member of a distinguished local family (e.g. the Christchurch Library is engraved "The Druitt Building"). The theory he was the Ripper is laid out in Martin Howells & Keith Skinner's 1987 The Ripper Legacy: The Life And Death Of Jack The Ripper. There was also a short biography, Montague Druitt: Portrait Of A Contender, by D.J. Leighton. The latest Ripper book just out this month, by Mark Whithead has a chapter summing up the Druitt case, pro and con, so far.
 Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline in From Hell           In 1894, Scotland Yard Commissioner Macnaughten, gave Druitt as chief suspect in a leaked memo (possibly drawn from Abberline's typed list of suspects). The son of Wimborne's leading surgeon, MJ Druitt had been a rather odd, unhappy young man, working as a tutor at a boys' boarding school. He was actually a qualified barrister, and some have suggested he had failed at that, but there is a record of him still taking some cases after that. It is possible he just wanted to be close to boys, for he was dismissed his teaching post for some unspecified act of sexual indecency. His body was found in the Thames on New Year's Eve 1888, having been there since soon after his sacking. His death was ruled a suicide as there were stones in his pockets, and he left a note saying he feared he was going the same way as their mother, i.e. being committed , after which she also committed suicide. ('Since Friday I felt I was going to be like mother, and the best thing for me was to die'.) This was shortly after the fifth and last identified Ripper killing, and Macnaughten let it be known he was their chief suspect - implying an arrest only pre-empted by suicide. Macnaughten also claimed Druitt's own family had identified as a suspect. ("From private information I have little doubt but that his own family suspected this man of being the Whitechapel murderer; it was alleged that he was sexually insane.")
Druitt book            But why? He doesn't match physical descriptions, and (to use police jargon) was not placed at the scene. Oddly, Macnaughten described this suspect as a doctor in his 40s when Druitt was a barrister-turned-teacher age just 31. Abberline said he didn't buy the Druitt theory either. The family, who accounts describe as 'strong Freemasons,' got the young Druitt buried with a memorial cross in the Wimborne Churchyard despite the rule that suicides were buried in unmarked graves on unconsecrated ground. More often than not, the conclusion is that the naming of Druitt was a convenient scapegoat for the police to excuse their failure to arrest the Ripper. This has also fuelled the suspicions of a 'Masonic' cover-up which have come to dominate what is called Ripperology since the 1970s. This is the theory the Ripper was a high-ranking surgeon and Freemason, even that the killings were Masonic punishments done by a 3-man team according to ritual - some of the victims were strangely mutilated in a way described in Masonic oaths. The Ripper's reign of terror was supposedly to cover up the secret marriage of Queen Victoria's putative royal heir to a pregnant Catholic shopgirl, the other victims being her associates or perhaps confederates in a blackmail scheme.
            This was the theory propounded in 1976 in Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight, a young journalist who went on to write The Brotherhood in 1984, about how the Masons still controlled the police and judiciary to the extent they could pervert the course of justice. Ripperologists checking his sources have since found Knight adapted some facts to suit his conclusions or even invented details. Nevertheless, the Masonic-conspiracy has continued to flourish. It became the basis of the 1979 Holmes-meets-the-Ripper drama Murder By Decree by crime dramatist John Hopkins (Smiley's People etc), and in the 1990s part of the fabric of Alan Moore's serialized graphic novel From Hell (just out in a new edition). This opens with Abberline discussing the coverup on Bournemouth beach, and later has a scene with Druitt in Wimborne. These local details are omitted from the 2001 Hughes Brothers film of From Hell starring Johnny Depp as Abberline, but it retains the storyline, with Masonic forces kidnapping and then lobotomizing the Catholic wife, and later the actual killer, a mad surgeon. The 1988 Jack The Ripper TV series starring Michael Caine as Abberline also plumped for the 'mad surgeon' in its final choice of ending. (Four different endings were shot.)
            The Knight book had been based on a claim by Joseph Gorman, who claimed he was the Victorian painter Walter The Ripper And The Royals by Melvyn FaircloughSickert's illegitimate son. He said his father had been forced to identify the intended victims as he knew the women as his portrait models, and that his own mother was the secret Catholic wife of Queen Victoria's possible heir Prince Eddy (who was subsequently accused of being the actual Ripper). Joseph Gorman-Sickert publicly disavowed the resulting Knight book when it argued the painter was not so much reluctant confederate as keen participant in the murder-mutilations. He went on to contribute to other books such as The Ripper And The Royals by Melvyn Fairclough. More recently, bestselling American crime writer Patricia Cornwell put some of her personal fortune into buying a Sickert painting to have it forensically tested for links to Ripper evidence. Her argument, in her book Case Closed was the same as Knight's: that Sickert in his paintings of strange East End bedroom scenes apparently showing women being threatened and mutilated, was leaving deliberate clues for posterity.
            Abberline himself remained reluctant to talk about the case, saying Scotland Yard didn't like retired officers talking to the press about old cases, and it is said left no memoirs, keeping busy with his gardening. The 1988 centenary TV drama Jack The Ripper starring Michael Caine as Abberline was supposedly based on his memoirs, but Ripperologists claim this is a fiction, attributing 'quotes' from it in other books to the pen of the late Joseph G. Sickert. On his retirement from Pinkerton's in 1903, Abberline told the Pall Mall Gazette he had heard all the tales that 'Jack' had drowned (presumably Druitt), died in an asylum, etc. and none had any credibility. However he also told the Gazette he still suspected the murders had been commissioned by an American wanting organ parts (some victims had organs removed - one was sent to the police, signed "From Hell"), naming as the actual killer a Polish barber, Klosowski alias 'George Chapman', whose visit to London from America coincided with the murders. (He was later hanged in the USA for poisoning several common-law wives.)
            No researcher today seems to give this theory the slightest credibility, and since Abberline is regarded as a diligent detective (84 commendations), some have implied this was a story fed to the press as a blind, concealing a suspect who could never be named. One early Ripper author claimed that as a young reporter he visited the retired Abberline in Bournemouth, to be told the real murderer was not a working-class type or immigrant but someone 'a long way up' in London society. Nothing connected to the Ripper case is ever straightforward, and Abberline had another theory, the most daring yet, to explain how the The only known likeness of Abberline, a newspaper sketchRipper was able to murder again and again while the Ripper manhunt and hue and cry was on. To quote the BBC, "Abberline always believed the Ripper could have been female. DNA profiling techniques used last year on letters sent by the killer backed up his belief."
           The dedicated detective, obsessed with catching the serial killer terrorising the community at the expense of his own personal life, is a familiar figure today. The prototype goes back to legend and folklore, as in the folk-song 'The Unquiet Grave,' about a man unable to let go of the dead. This became the title of a compendium (including a reference to visiting Bournemouth gardens) by 1930s literary editor Cyril Connolly for a work he compiled while brooding over life's missed opportunities and failures, on "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within." Like the never-solved "American Jack the Ripper" case, that of the Zodiac Killer, the case remains conspicuously unclosed, still a matter of international obsession. When Abberline left the police to join Pinkerton's in 1892, his CID 'Ripper' team gave him a strange lest-we-forget memento mori leaving present, which was put on display at the 2001 Bournemouth Conference. This was a walking stick, sold as a Ripper souvenir at the time, whose carved, painted head showed a cowled Death-like figure.
            Whether the new BBC1 drama will feature Druitt as a suspect is not known yet, but an early press release said it will "show the darker side of opium-addicted Inspector George Frederick Abberline, with him falling into depression under his workload." The workload depression seems authentic enough, based on an 1892 press comment:

the number of statements made - all of them required to be recorded and searched into - was so great that the officer almost broke down under the pressure. Yet his anxiety to bring the murderer to justice led him, after occupying the whole day in directing his staff, to pass the time in the streets until early morning, driving home, fagged and weary, at 5am. And it happened frequently too that, just as he was going to bed he would be summoned back to the East End by telegraph, there to interrogate some lunatic or suspected person whom the inspector in charge would not take the responsibility of questioning.

The notion Abberline was "opium-addicted" is by all accounts an invention of the From Hell graphic novel and film. This had Abberline quitting and apparently killing himself with an overdose in protest at a Royal-Masonic conspiracy (Queen Victoria sanctioning the killing of prostitutes to suppress an illicit common-law marriage of Prince Eddy to a Catholic girl). In reality Abberline was a well-regarded detective, perhaps no Sherlock Holmes, but an able and conscientious man who continued working for the CID after 1888, then had a career as a private detective, becoming European agent for Pinkerton's Detective Agency in Monte Carlo, finally enjoying over two decades of retirement in Bournemouth. (One of the reasons he had no headstone till now is that in his last year the twice-married detective seems to have been living with another woman.) There is also no evidence he was having a romantic liaison with one of the Ripper victims, Mary Jane Kelly, as From Hell has it. Whether Druitt can rest easier these days is hard to say, but poor old Inspector Abberline must be turning in his grave.
Return To Top


The Not So Feral Beast
At the Diogenes Club meeting Friday evening, we were discussing ways the media is controlled. One approach that didn't really come up, no doubt as it's now so routine, was that used in the Murdoch press and TV empire - the focus on celebrity. This is reminiscent of Orwell's 1984 where there are diversions for the "proles" (proletarian masses) to distract them from serious issues like war. One is reminded of the government PRO who designated 9-11 'a good day to bury bad news' - treating the twin-towers attack not as bad news but as a welcome diversion, a real-life entertainment spectacle. The cult of celebrity also makes journalists and news editors vulnerable to news management by their subjects, producing features with no bite to them.
               And it makes the subjects in turn lose their grip on reality - as we've now seen with politicians as well as movie stars. Diogenes thought all celebrity a nonsense - when Alexander the Great came to visit the free-living philosopher for his comments, Diogenes simply engaged in clever put-downs of this 'living god.' For he saw flattery as a poison to the human spirit. This week's news of the DNA study how cats evolved as companions while remaining aloof and prepared to bite the hand that feeds them reminds me of his own position. (Though he always identified with dogs rather than cats.) He was once asked what creature's bite is the worst. He replied, "Of those that are wild, a sycophant's; of those that are tame, a flatterer's".
               The approach is also reminiscent of advice I was given by a business type when first producing local articles, to 'keep it light and fluffy' - on the grounds nobody really wants to read anything else. The real reason for this rationale of course is so that people will not be distracted from the accompanying ads - an approach utilised in mainstream US TV and movies. The focus on celebrity has been in place for so long now it seems media graduates now see nothing amiss with it anymore, being too young to know any different. The opposite, traditional approach - lest we forget - is that it's only news if someone doesn't want it published - anything else is just PR. When I started working in local cable TV many years ago in North America, I questioned why we had to cover city council meetings, which made for a boring studio-bound show. The answer was simple: "Because they don't want us to." Live TV coverage means vested council interests can't just push through improper legislation or change the minutes when anything awkward comes up. (Don't hold your breath to see it here.)
               For those of us who follow such trends, the Mika Brzezinski incident last week hopefully will prove a turning point in greater media self-awareness of this issue. This was where a 40-year old US cable-TV presenter balked at leading yet another daily newscast with an update of the Paris-Hilton-jail saga. Brzezinski, daughter of a top US political advisor, argued other news was more important. She refused several times to read the Hilton story as a lead item, tried to burn her copy on-air, then shredded it. Her colleagues taunted her or told her she was unprofessional. It became a 'TV-presenter flips out' news story, the sort of quirky item they run at the end of newscasts. Once, that might have been the end of it, but now such stories get picked up online via RSS feeds. If you go to Google News, you Mika Brzezinski: journalistic fluff - a burning issue? get only 109 results for 'Mika Brzezinski' compared to 29,879 for Paris Hilton.
But if you go to the main Google search page, you get around 364,000 hits for 'Mika Brzezinski' (with quotes). This is because Google News feeds off mainstream news sources, whereas the main page includes blogs and non-news pages. An off-air recording of the TV newscast was also posted on YouTube, where it got over a million views in three days. The Guardian compared her to the newsreader played by Peter Finch in Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 movie Network, who attracts a cult following when he has an on-air breakdown, popularising the catch-phrase "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." This would be what worries TV bosses about such incidents - that others will follow. At present the "fluffy" school is actually regarded in war-torn, terror-obsessed America as patriotic, but such incidents can have an emperor's-new-clothes effect of tearing away the veil of illusion and pretence Diogenes spoke out against. Of course, a main-page search on Paris Hilton still gives us 85,700,000 hits, which is how you measure celebrity these days - Google hits in over 6 figures. A Google search for UK-only pages on 'Mika Brzezinski' yields only 608 hits. The fluffy school of journalism isn't confined to the US.
               Our own local Echo has just devoted a whole page of its weekend edition to the matter, with an item by news editor Andy Martin agreeing with Brzezinski's view we have "deserted our post." However he is, as he admits, a minority of one - though he says Gordon Brown endorses a return to seriousness. Presumably this is a follow-on to Blair's departing take on the press as 'a pack of feral beasts' who rampage around promoting their own agenda, instead of just reporting government 'news'. (He may have got the metaphor from Evelyn Waugh, who, in Scoop and Brideshead Revisited, popularised the nick-name for the typical British newspaper 'The Daily Beast.') Apparently the editor's colleagues regard him as a "political anorak" for thinking world hunger and planetary changes are more important than a hotel tycoon's daughter getting jailed for drunk-driving related charges. (The Echo is not really a local paper, being owned by NewsQuest, a subsidiary of the US Gannett corporation, which owns over 300 newspapers.) The page was headlined 'Should This Story Even BE In The Daily Echo?' The marketing people obviously thought so, but presumably the headline question was to prompt readers' online comments. However, when you look at the 'Comment Online' box at page bottom, what readers are invited to comment about is (wait for it) "Why is Paris Hilton famous?"
               The biggest item on the Echo page was a photo, not of Brzezinski, but of Paris Hilton as she appeared on a TV show, captioned "Please Release Me." (Whatever happened to "Free The Oppressed Rich"?) This photo was even larger than the photos of Madonna the Echo seems to have a large supply of. (The singer lives on the edge of the Echo's distribution area, near Shaftesbury, and whenever she does something vaguely newsworthy, the Echo runs a story illustrated by a large colour photo of her, just in case we've forgotten what she looks like.) On the reverse of the 'Should-This-Story-Even-Be-In-The-Daily-Echo?' page was a large charity-PR photo. Buried below that, in what is called in Fleet Street parlance the basement slot, was a news story (with the end clipped off for lack of space) that our new Bournemouth Council has definitely withdrawn the plans for the proposed Winter Gardens arts complex. (So much for that long-running saga.)
               What did the Echo's weekend edition actually lead with, on its front page? The main news story was a local spin-off of the terror alert story, saying the whole County was on alert due to the bomb scares in London and Glasgow. However quotes from local business types such as "It doesn't worry me in the slightest" and "It's just one of those things," suggested a certain lack of substance here. So as a distraction, the 'above-the-fold' space went to another lost-cat-comes-home story (I often think the Echo secretly employs a 'Cat News Editor'), about a cat that brought its injured litter-mate home, with the linked-to photo-story inside covering most of another page. Apparently the cat is now something of a local celebrity.
Welcome back, fluffy.


Return To Top


'Brideshead Revisited,' Revisited
A big-screen version of Evelyn Waugh's local-interest masterpiece Brideshead Revisited has finally begun filming this month , sixty years after the author went to Hollywood to discuss a proposed feature film.
Brideshead 1995 play The new £10M BBC Films production is being made with backing from Hollywood 'mini-major' Miramax, the current specialists in co-producing British heritage-drama features for the US market. It is being produced by Ecosse Films, who have made two other local-interest films, Mrs Brown and the ITV Xmas 2006 telefeature of Hardy's Under The Greenwood Tree. It will co-star three relative newcomers as the novel's and TV series' narrator Charles Ryder, Lord Sebastian, and Lady Julia, backed by three stage and screen veterans as the parents (Patrick Malahide as Mr. Ryder, and Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson as Lord and Lady Marchmain). It is being directed by Julian Jarrold, who did the recent Jane Austen biopic Becoming Jane.
As so often happens with films set in this region, the production will be entirely filmed elsewhere. The novel's titular somewhere-in-Wiltshire manor, Brideshead, is again being represented by Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which the Granada TV 1981 series made world-famous. (It lies within Granada TV's broadcast area, for which the license was then up for renewal - the usual 'inside' reason given why they invested up to £10 million in the type of expensive long-form 'literary' drama previously only seen on the BBC.) Most of the action this time will take place at Brideshead, as the script focuses on the affair between Charles and Julia, sister of his wastrel college friend Sebastian, glossing over the earlier Oxford days prominent in Book One of the novel, "Et In Arcadia Ego."
This is not the first adaptation of the novel to focus in thus, due to the time constraint of being confined to a single-evening presentation (instead of the TV version's 11 hours). In 1995, the first stage version of the novel was produced for the novel's 50th anniversary. When it came on tour here, to the Bournemouth Pavilion, it did not get a good reception, and this led to a series of letters in the local Echo about lack of local support for quality drama. One of the letters referred to an earlier instance, when actress Jane Lapotaire wrote to the Echo complaining, on behalf of Sir Anthony Quayle's Compass Theatre company, about poor local support for their production of The Tempest. (The original Compass Theatre production at the Old Vic co-starred Max Von Sydow and Alexei Sayle, and was directed by Jonathan Miller.) However the problem with this adaptation was built-in.
Invited along by the Echo's arts writer to furnish a second opinion on the adaptation, I attended the local premiere of this stage version, directed by veteran actor-producer-director Charles Vance who specialized in adapting works best-known as film-TV productions. It co-starred, again, three relative unknowns in the younger-generation roles: Mark Elstrob as Charles, Toby Walton as Sebastian, and his future wife Freya Copeland as Julia. Again, the three older-generation parts were played by veterans who got top billing: Nigel Davenport and Barbara Murray as Lord and Lady Marchmain, and former Bournemouth resident Richard Todd as the eccentric Mr Ryder.
Afterwards over coffee, we tried to work out what had gone so badly wrong. Part of it, we thought, was the work focused on one relationship, portrayed as a great love - in that case, Charles and Sebastian rather than Charles and Julia. (This interpretation may have been inspired by recent biographical speculation Waugh himself had a homosexual phase at Oxford and that Sebastian represents a first love he could not later acknowledge.)
The focus was no doubt prompted by the single-evening time constraint, but it still meant the action of the story, which spans twenty years, was reduced to a kind of reductio ad absurdum, similar to the work of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, with characters periodically shouting "Charles!" "Sebastian!" "Julia!" and "God!" The Echo review the next day described the play as "an exhausting dash" from one set of rooms to another, adding the Catholic-guilt theme did not so much rear its head periodically as "jump and down like an irritating dog."
Lack of subtlety in the stage version aside, the reality is that any focus on the ups and downs of the characters' relationships obscures the work's underlying interest, which is a much broader one. However, this takes some understanding of the novel's and author's background, which is of interest here as key parts of it were local. This deserves a separate feature of its own, which I'll do when we have more details of the current production for comparison. In the meantime we can only hope that the current scriptwriters have the talents of a Truffaut in Jules Et Jim, and are able to compress a long story arc into the standard 100 minutes.

Return To Top


Make Mine A Double
Films about writers are now something of a fashion, and with the area's wealth of literary heritage, we should reasonably expect to see films dealing with this. But apart from films of Jane Austen works, we haven't had much in the way of local links so far. Now two rival films are coming on a once locally-resident literary couple, the hard-drinking husband and wife team of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas.
Although many people think of her as Irish, Caitlin Macnamara, as she then was, grew up partly in this area. She and her mother had stayed in the commune of artists and writers based at bohemian painter Augustus John's residence. This was sited first at Alderney Manor in Poole, and from 1927 at Fryern Court outside Fordingbridge. The Macnamara family moved into New Inn House (it had previously been a pub) at Blashford near Fordingbridge. The family's favourite sport was apparently tree-climbing. In 1929-30, at ages 14-15, she attended a finishing school in Bournemouth, Grovelly Manor School. According to her sister Nicolette's 1966 memoir Two Flamboyant Fathers, this turned her into a rampant snob ashamed of her modest family home. The headmistress called her 'a little forest pony' and told her she must carefully 'paddle her canoe between the rapids of Men, Scandal, and Poverty.'
Her parents were long separated. Her father Francis Macnamara, a poet, had stayed sometimes in the Bournemouth area, in order to lead a Bohemian life. Presumably this was via Augustus John's circle, for he later married Edie, the sister of Augustus's wife Dorelia, who was part of the entourage there. When Caitlin met Dylan in 1936, she was already John's model and mistress (John notoriously demanded a sort of droit de seigneur of his models), and the two men had a fight over her that summer.
The Augustus John Pub, FordingbridgeShe married Dylan in 1937, and they went to live at New Inn House in the winter of 1937-8. He wrote: "This is a very lovely place. Caitlin and I ride into the New Forest every day, into Bluebell Wood, or onto Cuckoo Hill." He corresponded with literary friends like Lawrence Durrell, and worked on his first book of prose. Mrs Macnamara was away, and they would lie in bed consuming liquorice allsorts and fizzy drinks. They also visited the local artists' and writers' local, the Load Of Hay (now renamed the Augustus John) in Fordingbridge, where they would drink, talk and play darts. The house had over two thousand books and he also read a lot - Jane Austen, Wodehouse, and 'some old Powys'.
Whether this was John Cowper or Theodore Powys is not specified, but it was probably the latter, for some of his later work echoes that of T.F. Powys. Dylan Thomas's 1950 masterwork Under Milk Wood is also said to have been partly inspired by the workd of this Dorset-based writer who created misanthropic portraits of humanity using a small town or village as a setting. As one of the characters says in Under Milk Wood, "there's a nasty lot live here when you come to think of it." Other parallels can be observed, e.g. Thomas's character who is "the white bone talking" is similar to a device in Powys' Fables. Although Augustus John, a T.F. Powys admirer, dismissed Under Milk Wood in his memoirs as lacking real wit, Thomas's work has more charm, as well as a satirical humour in its larger-than-life eccentricity and colourful language.
Double Drink Story - cover They stayed on at Blashford as they were "too broke to move". Dylan wrote his US agent that they had no money for clothes or food. He sent Dylan $20 for a railway ticket, and they used that to escape the area in May 1938. He went to America, and subsequently moved around between Wales, London, and the USA. He wrote wartime propaganda films, several books of stories and poetry, and most famously his 'play for voices' Under Milk Wood. He had almost completed it just before his premature death in America in 1953, supposedly from drink.
Caitlin survived Dylan by four decades. She became a writer herself with Leftover Life To Kill, a candid account of her first year of widowhood. She also left a posthumous memoir, published by Virago, titled Double Drink Story: My Life with Dylan Thomas , saying "ours was a drink story, not a love story ... our one and only true love was drink." (Described by a friend as an Irish drinker, she was able to drink Dylan under the table.) The year after her death in 1994, a film was announced of her life, based on a book compiled by George Tremlett from taped reminiscences she recorded in the 1980s. The Map Of Love (the title is that of a Dylan Thomas anthology) was to be produced by Mick Jagger's Jagged Films and directed by Chris Monger, and star Emily Watson as Caitlin and Dougray Scott as Dylan. The Dylan Thomas Society denounced it as "the one-sided view of a sick and alcoholic Caitlin," while his daughter criticized it for perpetuating "the myth that her parents had a bad sex life" [Observer Review 9-7-95]. After a decade in development hell, the project was announced as abandoned in 2004 (Dougray Scott instead played the codebreaker hero of Jagged Films's production, Enigma.)
Caitlin's memoir, pbk cover On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Dylan's death, Andrew Sinclair, who had filmed Under Milk Wood with Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1972, announced a film to be called Dylan On Dylan, starring David Hemmings and Anghared Rees (from Poldark) as the mature Dylan and Caitlin, with two younger actors as their youthful versions, plus the three stars from the 1972 film. This began filming, but seems to have been either unshowable or never completed (cf. BFI index). Theirs is a colourful story, with opportunities for award-winning performances for both the male and female leads, and I'm sure that there have been other films planned that we don't know about. There seems to be some sort of curse on films of their life.
Now two more have gone into production, one in Wales, and one in Ireland. The Best Time of Our Lives stars Keira Knightley and is scripted by her playwright mother. Knightley will not play Caitlin, but the poet's childhood sweetheart with whom she supposedly had a lesbian relationship. The tabloids have been covering this angle, and the fact that the actress who was to play Caitlin, Lindsey Lohan, suddenly withdrew on the eve of shooting last month (now replaced by Sienna Miller). Dougray Scott was back in the running to play Dylan, but the role has now gone to Matthew Rhys, and the film has been re-titled The Edge Of Love. Apparently this script centres around a wartime incident in Wales which was the basis of a Radio 4 play several years ago, involving a jealous husband, who was the producer's grandfather. The other film, which sounds as if it will offer more in the way of local interest, is simply titled Caitlin and is being produced in Ireland by longtime Dylan Thomas buff Pierce Brosnan, who also plays her literary agent. Again, this has two different actresses playing her throughout her life, with Miranda Richardson as the older version and "ex-Bond girl" (as the press call her) Rosamund Pike as her younger self, with Dylan played by Tony Blair impersonator Michael Sheen.

Return To Top


Would You Believe 'CSI Bournemouth'?
Bournemouth squareThe Bank Holiday weekend just past was used to commemorate "the planet's most successful TV programme franchise," CSI, on the work of America's Crime Scene Investigators. "CSI - The Inside Story" had interviews with the show's main director and executive producer, Danny Cannon, who turned out to be British, as did the writer interviewed. (The 3 series theme tunes are also British - all songs by The Who.) The producers and stars described how it had gone from being a hit series, set in Las Vegas, to being a programming franchise, with two other series now up and running: CSI: NY, and CSI: Miami. The point of local interest here was that the producers are now contemplating setting a 4th series set in England. "We'd love to do a 'CSI Bournemouth' " said one.
At first this might seem a joke, but whether it was or not, the suggestion may not be as frivolous as it first sounds. Bournemouth is a relatively young, purpose-built town like Las Vegas and Miami, which most people know as a seaside resort. This now includes a youth-oriented 'surfer' scene, something mainstream American audiences could relate to. The summer-holiday aspect provides potential variety for plot setups - both the Las Vegas CSI series and CSI Miami plots often build stories around visitors who are there to party. The Las Vegas series is set during the night shift and focuses on night life, whereas the Miami series is set mainly in bright sunlight. Bournemouth could offer both aspects, for as well as its beach scene, its new club scene has earned it the nickname Sin City, with the downtown core referred to as Clubland after dark. The club scene overlaps with its resort aspect, the town having a reputation as the British equivalent of the Greek club-resort of Faliraki where the objects of an evening out are drinking and sex a recipe for different kinds of trauma and injury. On the other hand, the town is also a venue every autumn for political Party Conferences, so there could also be security and terrorism-related scenarios involving bomb or mass-poisoning plots. Bournemouth has had real-life IRA bomb attacks and associated scares.
The behind-the-scenes CSI documentary also said plots are often inspired by real cases, and of course there was a real-life local bomb plot which would make a suitable pilot episode. It had all the usual elements - advance warnings of mayhem to come, the police racing against time to prevent it, a 'perfect' crime plot spoiled by a fatal error, massive police surveillance operation, forensic analysis of clues, a cat-and-mouse game involving coded messages in newspaper personal ads, the innocent 'red herring' suspect, a special bank account set up for the ransom, and that favourite of crime writers, the dawning realisation this was a 'copycat' crime… Such was its complexity I've put the details on a separate page. [Click to read 'The Bournemouth Bomber Blackmail Plot - A Real-Life Local 'CSI' Case'.]


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - Monstrous Creation Or Monstrous Fraud?
No sooner has the Conan-Doyle-as-mad-plagiarizing-murderer fuss died down, than another literary controversy over authorship has emerged concerning a local-interest writer. The Shelley Memorial at Christchurch Priory, with no mention of 'the dreaded F word' i.e. FrankensteinThe fuss this past month has been the "Mary Shelley did not write Frankenstein" controversy. An American, John Lauritson, is publishing a book in May, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, claiming Mary's husband, the poet Percy Shelley, was the real author, and her imposture as author was one of the great literary hoaxes, by Shelley. This happened just after Boscombe MP Tobias Ellwood announced his National Lottery funding application to erect a bronze statue in Boscombe, near where Shelley Manor stands, depicting Frankenstein's brought-to-life monster. Her 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein Or The Modern Prometheus is one of those classics that are largely unread, known mainly via the famous 1931 US movie adaptation starring Boris Karloff, which is in fact only vaguely based on it. (The one close adaptation was directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring himself as the mad doctor and De Niro as The Monster, which was televised last month.) Germaine Greer wrote, for the Guardian Books supplement, a lengthy, sardonic riposte to this new a-man-must-have-written-it theory, titled "Yes, Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It's obvious - because the book is so bad".
The idea the 19-year old Mary's work was improved upon by her husband, and possibly Byron, is not new. All authors have editors, and - if they're lucky when they start out - also a mentor. Both men were part of her immediate social circle, and participants at the famous ghost-tale writing competition that led to the book. (That 1816 literary contest is dramatised in a 1986 film called Gothic by our own resident bad-boy director, Ken Russell, starring Gabriel Byrne as Byron, Julian Sands as Percy Shelley and Natasha Richardson as Mary). The first edition was published anonymously, prompting speculation about its authorship from the outset - as Percy Shelley signed the Introduction, there was speculation it was he or Byron. (Sir Walter Scott had also published his first novels anonymously to protect his reputation as a poet, novels then being regarded as infra dig.) While the 2nd and 3rd editions later credited Mary as author, the controversy was already up and running. Mary in fact revised the novel in 1831, so there are two variant versions available.
The exact attribution of authorship is something I touched on, in a slightly different context, last year in an item on her mother Mary Wollstonecraft - with whom her daughter is sometimes confused, due to styling herself Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (which was not her legal name). I related how a decade ago, I went to Shelley Manor when it was still a museum, in order to examine the author's actual by-line on the earliest credited edition (the 2nd). It said 'Frankenstein by Mrs Shelley.' This was partly a 19th-C. convention, assuring the reader the author had some actual experience of life, for single women tended to be stuck at home forever, living with their parents. It was also no doubt partly loyalty to her late husband, to whom his son created a shrine containing the poet's heart when he moved to Bournemouth. (Shelley Manor was also meant to be Mary's final home, but she died just before it was finished. Her coffin was moved here, along with those of her famous literary parents, when she died in 1851.) Mary wrote other novels, several of which are said to be better written.
Last year, after a long civic battle [covered here earlier] partial restoration of Boscombe's Shelley Manor as a Shelley Museum was approved. The Shelley family have two other local memorials. One is the Godwin-Shelley family tomb at St Peter's in downtown Bournemouth (with Shelley's heart in Mary's coffin). The other is the marble memorial [pictured] in Christchurch Priory, St Peter's having refused it to avoid becoming a "Shelley shrine". But neither commemorate Mary's authorship of a work that helped inspire the science-fiction genre. (Recently I examined both tombs to confirm neither mentions Frankenstein.) This may have been for the same reason the London church authorities until 2003 refused to let English Heritage erect a plaque to her if it mentioned 'the dreaded F word', i.e. Frankenstein. The controversy only adds weight to the argument she should have a statue dedicated to her - even if it does depict The Monster rather than the author. For copyright reasons the Monster will not just resemble Boris Karloff or something out of The Munsters TV show, but will have to be an original work, like Mary's novel.

Return To Top


Conan Doyle, Plagiarist, Madman And Murderer?
In recent years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle MD has been accused of poisoning a friend from whom he got the basis for his most famous novel. And a "CSI" style inquest has just been opened into the 1926 death of Houdini, who campaigned against Spiritualism as a con, with Doyle as chief suspect. Now a Poole GP has written a biography of Doyle as subject to delusions. Earlier, there were rumours Doyle set fire to his New Forest home where he held seances. Plagiarism, madness, and murder? The truth, as usual, is not so elementary ...
It's one of a number of apocryphal stories floating around, like the one about him being buried upright. These presumably date back to the 1950s when his grave was moved to the New Forest. He had discovered the Forest when researching his 1891 historical romance The White Company there, his own favourite among his novels. To satisfy his love of the locale, he bought a second home there: Bignell House in Bignell Wood, near Brook. He rebuilt it to incorporate the old barn as offices and lived there part of each year, 1925-9.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's grave at All Saints, Minstead, New ForestHe would've died there too, but a serious fire in 1929 forced him to move back to his other house, in Sussex, where he died and was buried in the garden. (However when his adult children sold off the Sussex house in 1955, his body and that of his 2nd wife Jean were quietly dug up by night and put in a laundry van, and reinterred in the churchyard at Minstead, home of the White Company's young hero.) The séances Conan Doyle held here in the 1920s provoked such local hostility the postman refused to deliver letters. There were claims of local ghost sightings resulting from the séances 'summoning up' spirits. In 1955, the house became a psychiatric clinic, and according to Charles Higham's 1976 biography, staff and patients had "a series of extremely disquieting experiences" till an exorcism was done in 1961.
Like others involved with occult matters, Conan Doyle has been portrayed as a neurotic. A 2005 BBC drama by David Pirie, The Strange Case Of Sherlock Holmes And Arthur Conan Doyle, shows him as mentally unstable, threatened with death and mutilation for killing off Holmes, afraid he will became insane like his dead father, an artist who drew fairies, and turning to séances to contact him. Around ten years ago, the local newspaper published an investigative feature by Peter Tate [Echo 10-2-96] into these rumours of madness and arson and found nothing in them. Now, Dr Andrew Norman, a retired Poole GP who writes biographies diagnosing his subjects (such as TE Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, and Thomas Hardy) psychologically has written Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes, characterizing Doyle as delusional over his backing for the reality of the spirit world and 'fairy photographs'.
House Of The Baskervilles book cover The murder scenarios are of more recent provenance, conspiracy theories with widespread press coverage. The first accusation, over The Hound Of The Baskervilles, emerged in 2000. The scenario here is, to quote CNN [12-9-00]: "A world famous author steals a story idea from his best friend and the resulting book becomes a best seller. To avoid being exposed as a fraud, he has his friend killed by persuading the wife, with whom he is having an affair, to poison him." Scotland Yard detectives supposedly investigated the claim, made in the book House Of The Baskervilles by former psychologist Rodger Garrick-Steele, that oddities over the death suggest Doyle had his friend Fletcher Robinson poisoned with laudanum, and had the cause of death passed off as typhoid. (Doyle had killed off his hero Sherlock Holmes in 1894 but used the Hound to bring him back to pay for his Spiritualist activities.) He had credited Robinson in print with the idea, but the new argument was that Doyle drew on a manuscript called An Adventure On Dartmoor that Robinson, a former editor of the Daily Express, had written, the original idea having been the book would be a joint effort. After Robinson claimed he wrote the first two chapters of The Hound himself, Doyle prefaced later editions that 'the plot and every word of the actual narrative was my own.' (It has to be said they remained friends after the novel was published, Doyle paying him £2500 in royalties, and Robinson had full access to the law, being also a barrister.) Since then, it's also been pointed out that many of the novel's elements can be found in two books by Victorian writer Sabine Baring-Gould. (A new study of these issues by Robert Macfarlane, Original Copy: Plagiarism And Originality In 19-Century Literature suggests Victorian authors did often copy.) In 2005, biographer Garrick-Steele joined a team hoping to exhume Robinson's corpse from Dartmoor and use modern forensics to examine it, but nothing further has been announced.
The second accusation has just emerged, again inspired by a new biography, The Secret Life Of Houdini, raising the issue, with a "CSI: Houdini" team wanting to exhume the corpse to see if he really died at Hallowe'en 1926 from a ruptured appendix, or was poisoned as Doyle seemed to predict in a 1924 letter to Houdini, saying he would "get his just desserts very exactly meted out ... there is a general payday coming soon." The press stories like to quote Holmes, "...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." These real-life conspiracy theories do have an obvious appeal to the Sherlock Holmes in us. But the sceptical Holmesian might point to another Sherlock quote, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."
Update [new biography of ACD, and new ACD literary competition]


Return To Top


Our Local Literary Scene, Ten Years On
A year ago, I did a blog item titled 'Our Local Film Scene, Ten Years On' taking stock of how little had changed over the decade in terms of representation of the area, as an intro to this site's then-new film section, which now has over half a dozen full-length content pages. Much the same could be said re the poor representation of our local literary scene, Hardy apart. I began documenting local-interest literature over ten years ago, but this being pre-Web, it was impossible to publish in-depth coverage without major expense, and I had to be content with teaching evening courses on "Exploring Wessex Literature", having found there was no real official interest in promoting anyone else except Hardy ( some years on, the Dorset County Museum did open a Writers' Gallery focussing on the nearby Chaldon Group). Now I've adapted that material and some other research as the core of a literary sub-site, on local-interest novels, short stories, poetry, and dramatic works, whose home page is here.
Update: Several books in the bibliography are being serialised on BBC radio. Classic thriller Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, whose 2nd half is set in Dorset, is running as a 15-part serial on BBC7 digital radio (at 0930 and 2030 M-F), as is John Wyndham's classic SF novel Day Of The Triffids, which has a finale set in the region (at 1830 and 0030 M-F). And the latest addition to the local-lit section, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, is being serialised on Radio 4 at 2245 M-F from April 2nd. Jane Austen's Persuasion is on ITV Sunday April 1st at 9pm (and no doubt out on DVD soon after that).
Return To Top

England's Jane Takes Centre Stage
Anne Hathaway as Jane AustenFurther to last year's coverage ("Jane Austen 2006"), details have appeared of the Jane Austen screen adaptations announced last year. Billie Piper, lately Dr Who's assistant, is to star in ITV's Mansfield Park; Sally Hawkins, who appeared in the BBC One Victorian-lesbian drama Tipping The Velvet, will star in ITV's Persuasion, while BBC's The Archers actor Felicity Jones will star in Andrew Davies's adaptation of Northanger Abbey (set in Bath but being filmed in Dublin), also for ITV. It's been officially designated ITV's 'Jane Austen Season', and to beef this Sunday-evening 'event' slot, they will also repeat their 'movie' version of Emma, starring Kate Beckinsale. (This one-off drama had been classed as a TV movie since ITV Drama had a "no-classics" rule, now abandoned.) Another new production announced last year was Sense And Sensibility, also being scripted by Andrew Davies, this time for BBC One, using the same half-hour soap-opera format as Davies used for BBC's Bleak House, to appear in autumn 2007, in the slot after Eastenders. The broadcast of these may have been timed to either coincide with, or follow, release of Columbia/Miramax's new £9 million feature biopic Becoming Jane, now announced for a March release, for this already talked-about romantic drama was bound to attract much more coverage than any TV adaptation ever could.
Becoming Jane film poster Based on a similarly named biography by Australian-American writer Jon Spence (to be re-published as a film tie-in paperback), Becoming Jane sounds out possible biographical parallels with the novels, the theory being the budding novelist must have had some sources of inspiration besides social gossip. Little is known about the romantic private life of the flesh-and-blood Jane, which allows dramatists room to create speculative romances. Writers of course are often inspired by other writers, and the Telegraph Magazine's cover story reports her affair begins, in 1795, after a young man gives the 20-year-old a copy of Fielding's 1749 Tom Jones (another local-interest book - Fielding had links with the Sherborne area, and Lyme). The online trailer has him saying that if she wishes to become part of a masculine profession, then 'your horizons must be widened.' He invites her to a country fair where prostitutes abound, and she watches him swimming nude. Jane's earlier biographers are already commenting sternly on the 'Life-Changing Romance' idea ("It's like saying Shakespeare murdered people to give him enough information to write Macbeth. Poppycock.") The Telegraph feature also notes Claire Tomalin's earlier award-winning biography Jane Austen: A Life also has this affair as life-changing ("From now on she carried … the knowledge of sexual vulnerability; of what it is to be entranced by the dangerous stranger … to long for what you are not going to have and had better not mention. Her writing becomes informed by this knowledge, running like a dark undercurrent beneath the comedy.")
Backing for a 'young Jane in love' film came in the wake of the critical and commercial success of Shakespeare In Love and Mrs Brown, about the less well-known private lives of famous historical figures. Where this figure is a writer, it creates an additional dimension, of the prospective influence of private life on later work. There is a similar conception in the recent Beatrix Potter biopic starring Renee Zellweger. Austen in fact had another relationship, in Teignmouth in 1802, where the young man died suddenly soon after they met. We may be seeing the birth of a film sub-genre, akin to the type of novel known as the 'sentimental education' after a novel by Flaubert. That is, a then-unrecognised writer (or artist), played by a bankable American star, finds consolation from youthful heartbreak in developing his or her writing career, perhaps drawing on painful experience for artistic inspiration. (I can almost hear Ken Russell's phone in Lymington ringing, he having helped pioneer the formative genre via a series of low-budget films about the interplay of the private and artistic lives of composers and other artists.)
Jane and LefroyNow it is the turn of "England's Jane", as Kipling called her. This stars the young American co-star of The Princess Diaries, Brokeback Mountain, and The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway, as Jane. The Hampshire-set Becoming Jane was shot in Ireland by Ecosse Films, who made Mrs Brown (partly shot at Osborne House, IOW) as well as Hardy's Under The Greenwood Tree (Dorset-set but shot on Jersey). Austen did make some use of this area, based on her later Lyme Regis stay. (She didn't care for Weymouth, where her sister Cassandra holidayed while the King and his circle were there - "altogether a shocking place, I perceive, without recommendation of any kind."). It was an incident in the plot of her Persuasion that turned the town's stone pier, the Cobb, into a literary landmark long before The French Lieutenant's Woman came along. When Poet Laureate Lord Tennyson visited Lyme from his home on Wight, he was shown around by locally-resident fellow poet Francis Palgrave of "The Golden Treasury" fame. But when Palgrave began to tell him about the town's history, Tennyson retorted he didn't want to hear about that -- he wanted to see the Cobb steps where Louisa Musgrove fell!
Around 1816, Austen also began a final novel, Sanditon, about events surrounding the birth of a new seaside resort, which could have had local resonances with the then-current 'birth' of Bournemouth (usually dated to 1810-12). But she died after only a chapter or two was completed, age 41. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Update - Plain Jane Gets A Nose Job: The Guardian reports that in view of the film's more glamorous image, the publishers of the new deluxe edition of her novels felt her cover portrait needed a touch-up, so the only known likeness of 'plain Jane' has been photoshopped to add rosy cheeks, larger lips, more hair etc.

Return To Top

That Was The Year That Was – 2006 In Review
One of the problems of producing a topical blog is that, whatever stories you chose to cover, they are simply incidents whose larger significance will only be revealed in hindsight by posterity. A year-end review can allow a fresh perspective on events, which was not available at the time, as well as updating the stories themselves with any immediate follow-up developments. Of course, other times you just miss the emergence of a significant development, so conversely, this is a chance to catch up on these.
One example of this turnaround was veteran filmmaker Ken Russell, whose career had seemed the previous year to be over. He then seemed to bounce back with various new projects (“British Cinema's Bad Boy Carries On, Student Filmmaker-Style”). He was back in the headlines again after his New Forest cottage burnt down with all his possessions, vowing to carry on anyway with his new wife and acting partner (“Ken Russell - Altered Fates”). In December he resurfaced on BBC One's Imagine, on the future of the Web, seen shooting on digital video a Bronte arts-documentary video for showing on Google’s new YouTube site, saying it was better than wasting your time talking to dozens of money men. He had previously enthused about the web as a means to distribute independent films, and had already begun to offer DVDs of his completed recent works for sale online. At time of writing, he had just joined Channel 4's current Big Brother household team, at age 79.
Re DVDs, we did a couple of items on local-interest films released on those free DVDs newspapers give away at weekends. There were a pair of ‘Regency romances’ with Hugh Grant, Helena Bonham-Carter etc that were partly shot locally (“Cavalier Dorset On DVD”). More importantly, there was an improved release of another Hardy work, the film considered by some the best ever filmed in Dorset (“Far From The Madding Crowd On Widescreen DVD”).
The region’s greatest novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, was the subject of two other items. First, his work inspired the building of a model town in Szechwan (“Hardy's Dorset Goes To China”). Another new Hardy biography (following in the wake of Thomas Pite's The Guarded Life), Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, attracted interest for what more it might reveal of his private life (“Hardy - The Secret Life?”), and there was a tie-in Melvyn Bragg TV documentary, and in October the biography was done as Radio 4 Book of the Week …. Ironically this happened just before a sensational new theory was publicised in The Times in December that the sadness of Hardy’s poetry resulted from the fact (actually a medical conjecture) he had given his wife syphilis.
The National Trust began renting out Hardy’s Cottage, used for the Melvyn Bragg/Claire Tomalin TV docu mentioned, to literary types who want to experience a Victorian-style lifestyle.
The new River Cottage HQOn the theme of going back to the land, news of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘River Cottage’, shot in west Dorset, coming to an end proved premature. The last series was just a re-packaging of previous series (Escape To River Cottage, Return To River Cottage, River Cottage Forever, and Beyond River Cottage - all now gone to DVD). But Hugh Fearlessly Eating-All (as he’s known) has found yet another ‘River Cottage HQ’, at Park Farm [pictured], a dilapidated 60-acre farm in the Axe Valley near Lyme Regis, where he has a staff of 15 and runs one-day cooking courses. The late-autumn series was announced as covering the move from the ‘RCHQ’ farm near Bridport and the restoration of its 17th century farmhouse. In the event, his new TV series River Cottage Academy was another lifestyle-makeover setup. Each week he tried to convert a different group of fast-food loving townies, accommodated in tipis, to traditional organic cookery ... and animal slaughter. ("We're going out on a limb in the new series to be a bit more confrontational.") Oddly, the 'makeover' setup disappeared after a few episodes, supplanted by a return to the road trips. Just beforehand, HF-W got in the headlines when a stray remark suggested he had been contemplating becoming a vegetarian. However, he revealed he has a £1.9-million contract to write books, his current work being his essay collection Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All: Dispatches From The Gastronomic Frontline.
Documenting our cultural roots in the Georgian-Regency era was a recurrent media theme. There were several works on it as the era that gave birth to the British tradition of campaigning political satire. One figure who received belated biographical recognition was the ‘father’ of muckraking journalism in Britain (“ ‘King Leer’ Gets His Due”). He is known locally as the man who drove Britain’s first Scottish Prime Minister to seek refuge down here, to Highcliffe. (After I did a feature on this as the start of a Regency-era resort there, I also wrote a feature on ‘King Leer’, alias John Wilkes.)
Jane AustenVarious media events based on Jane Austen's work and life converged in 2006, including several new announced TV adaptations and the first feature biopic (“Jane Austen 2006”) – all to be shown in 2007. (Details here.)
Gentlemen Of The Night DVDOne of Melvyn Bragg's Twelve Books That Changed The World was by an 18thC. writer whose family tomb is in Bournemouth (“Mary Wollstonecraft – A Woman For Our Time”), while her daughter Mary Shelley featured in an item on the BBC-TV series The Romantics, along with a number of other Romantics with some local link - Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Clare, and Keats (“The Romantics Slept Here?”). Bournemouth’s long-derelict Shelley Manor also featured in an item about the belated DVD release of a student-made horror film which had acquired a certain cultish following (“Restoration And Renovation”). A local-interest documentary on the myths and truths behind tales of local smuggling in the Georgian era made good with local cinema showings followed by DVD release (“Casting Daylight On The 'Gentlemen Of The Night' ”), and was put up for an award.
Twentieth century figures and works dominated the rest of the year’s entries.
The TV version of Bragg's Twelve Books That Changed The World began with a work, Married Love, by another local-interest author, birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes (“The Sex Manual That Changed the World”). I had predicted further revelations re the private life of Tony Hancock after last year's coverage, but it was John Betjeman (founder of Bournemouth’s original Civic Society) whose private life yielded further revelations, for 2006 was his centenary. The Poet Laureate's centenary was commemorated by various media events (“Betjeman Centenary”), while a recently published document concerning the poet's private life proved to contain a secret code with a warning for future biographers (“The Betjeman Code”). The prankster explained in The Sunday Times [“You Deserved It, A.N. Wilson”, 10-9-06] how ‘I have made a monkey of him’, and why he did it – revenge for perceived plagiarism (literary plagiarism being much in the news in 2006).
Casino Royale posterThe 50th anniversary of Gerald Durrell's autobiographical bestseller My Family And Other Animals was commemorated by several events, including a new BBC TV feature-length adaptation issued on DVD this autumn (“From Bournemouth To Bestsellerdom And Back"). An item on locally-raised comedian Tony Hancock (“H-HHancock's Half-Life”) speculated we had not seen the end of revelations about his complicated private life. Long-unseen photos surfaced of John Lennon’s local mid-60s boating trips which may have inspired ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ (“Picture Yourself In A Boat On The River - The River Frome, That Is”). The new back-to-the-beginning 007 film led to a cycle of press features on Bond and his creator, which missed the fact Ian Fleming, and thus James Bond, had local roots down here on the south coast (“So, Mister Bond, We Meet Your Family At Last"). A tie-in we missed on that item was the 3rd anniversary of Cinema Retro magazine, on 60s-70s cinema. Co-edited by New Forest resident Dave Worrall, former filmmaker and Bond author, and published by his company, Solo Publishing of Christchurch, this is a welcome local success for magazine publishing after the disaster of last year.
Lancaster bomberOur news late last year that a remake of The Dam Busters was in pre-production was followed by an announcement Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson was to make it. This was denied - which proved to be a Hollywood-type stalling tactic while his company finalised a deal to produce (not direct) it. (Mel Gibson had the option, but dropped out after the anti-semitic remarks he made when arrested for drink-driving cost his two WW2 projects their backing.) Jackson has said that in the $50-million Universal / StudioCanal remake he wants to focus on the struggle of inventor Barnes Wallis to get the RAF’s backing. Wallis had Dorset family connections (he was related by marriage to Marie Stopes) and the famous 1954 film used the bouncing-bomb test-drop footage he personally shot at the Fleet Lagoon, both for the test-drop scenes and the raid itself. It’s this that regularly gets the film listed in "Movie Map" press and online listings as having been filmed in Dorset.
Pilcher video cover I did several items on the region’s use (or neglect) as a film-tv location. The year’s biggest hit on screen put Winchester nominally on The Da Vinci Code tourist ‘trail’ when it appeared in the film's end credits after the filmmakers used it in a couple of 2nd-unit flashback scenes (“Winchester And The Da Vinci Code”). “Jurassic Coast For The Armchair Traveller” outlined how a complete traverse of the 95-mile World Heritage Jurassic Coast is now possible for the armchair-traveller, via a new DVD/video series by a Dorset filmmaker who spent years on the project. An item on film location hunters looking for a steep hairpin-bend road mentioned the record-holding one near the 1,134-acre country estate on the Wilts-Dorset border owned by Madonna and her husband, thriller director Guy Ritchie (“Getting The Bends Near Lady Madonna”). Both being keen on shooting, their Ashcombe House estate is valued by her and her husband for its pheasants, and this got her back in the news: pheasants flying into estate-boundary power lines were blamed for repeatedly plunging Salisbury area into darkness, forcing Southern Electric to spend over £500K on a 'protective overcoat' for the high-voltage lines.
The final item here was on how the film-TV drama series which inspires the most “set-jetting” tourism to the region is a series of German productions that remains little-known locally (“Rosamunde Pilcher Country Starts Here”).
The First Of The FewThese were follow-ons to an earlier item this year on the poor promotion of the region as a diverse film location, where I revisited a report I did about this in 1996, to ask, a decade on, what has really changed? (“Our Film Production Scene, Ten Years On"). I also set up a section of the website to help provide information on this matter, which includes a productions-chronology listing and companionate narrative production history, and in-depth features on the making of local-interest films like Hepworth’s 1913 filming of Hamlet at Lulworth, the 1967 Far From The Madding Crowd, and The First Of The Few [pictured].
In 2007, we’ll be doing similar coverage of local-interest literature. There are many other writers besides Hardy, some of whom are well known nationally, but whose local links (as with Ian Fleming) are not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return To Top | Email Us   | Back To Home Page